Founders' Story: Peter Godart
Found’s origin story, like many, starts in outer space and lands on Earth.
My first job out of undergrad was working as a research scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), where from Pasadena, CA, we were just an uplink delay away from the action on the surface of Mars. This was a dream job for me. Growing up watching the Cosmos and reading science fiction instilled in me a cosmic curiosity, and more than that, a cosmic appreciation for life. The idea of exploring the solar system and beyond for evidence that we have some extraterrestrial counterparts, however complex, captivated me from an early age. At the same time, the Fermi Paradox rang true, and - at the risk of being overly sentimental - I developed this overwhelming sense that our planet Earth teeming with life in all its diverse forms is a beautiful anomaly worth preserving.
And its preservation is certainly not a given. Outside the usual doomsday scenarios - asteroids, solar flares, black holes - there are even more insidious threats, including those that upset the careful energy balance that keeps average surface temperatures between 0 and 100 C, a requirement for the liquid water needed for life as we know it. Anthropogenic climate change accelerated by the unsustainable (and inequitable) consumption of fossil fuels is among the greatest and most preventable of these threats. And far short of the Hothouse Earth scenario, even small changes in global mean temperature can wreak havoc.
I developed this overwhelming sense that our planet Earth teeming with life in all its diverse forms is a beautiful anomaly worth preserving.
My motivation to do something about climate change - rooted in a deep frustration given how relatively avoidable this problem is - has been a North Star throughout my life. In high school, I found my way to a lab at Rutgers University, where I spent time working on new carbon sequestration technologies. Then as an undergrad at MIT, I worked on kilowatt-scale power systems that could replace diesel generators with carbon-free alternatives. Coming out of MIT in 2015 though, I genuinely felt things were heading in the wrong direction at the global level. Emissions were accelerating and the story at the governmental level was “too little, too late”. I felt like a solution was too far off, and it seemed like perhaps a backup plan(et) was worth considering.
Back in Pasadena, I set out to determine for myself whether Mars was a suitable place to harbor life in a “Planet B” scenario, as was becoming a popular thought experiment amongst my peers. In fact, this was one of the primary reasons I took the job. In my role at JPL, I studied the surface of Mars daily through the eyes of the Mars Science Laboratory (“Curiosity”) and worked on technologies to transport rock cores from Mars back to Earth in an attempt to see if the fossilized past had anything to say about our future there. As time wore on, the answer became increasingly clear, culminating in the first of several important “a ha” moments in Found Energy’s origin story - Mars, while probably the most habitable place for humans in our solar system outside of Earth, would be a terrible place to live. Between the cold, severe landscape and the reduced gravity and limited protection against radiation that would take many generations to adapt to, Mars simply isn’t the Planet B we need (though perhaps the one we deserve if things got to the point on Earth where we would need to relocate there). This all hit me during a particularly stunning sunset drive home from work. As a hazy, golden downtown LA came into view from the 2, I made a promise to myself that I would dedicate my life to ensuring we could still live and thrive here.
And fortunately, life, in its indirect way, was already laying the groundwork for me to do just that.
While working on the Curiosity rover, I had successfully debugged a number of problems that left the team stumped before I arrived and soon enough, I was being pulled in on “tiger teams” to solve the most difficult problems across the organization. One such problem was around sending enough energy to the surface of Europa - one of the icy moons of Jupiter - to melt through large portions of ice in the search for potential traces of life (one of my colleagues there liked to say he’d be more surprised if we didn’t find dolphin-sized life there). For some planetary protection reasons, as well as a desire to minimize cost, nuclear power via the usual MMRTGs was off the table. Lithium-ion and other primary electrochemical batteries were not energy dense enough, leaving them out as well. These constraints led to my second key “a ha” moment - instead of thinking about sending energy as a dedicated subsystem, what if we took advantage of the fact that the spacecraft itself is a store of energy? Specifically, we’re already sending a substantial amount of energy embodied in just the aluminum chassis, landing gear, etc. - can we mine this store of energy on the surface when these components are no longer needed? I was given a budget, formed a team, and set off to build self-cannibalizing devices that consume their aluminum components by reacting them with water to produce hydrogen gas. I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t incredibly fun to work on, but after building a few working prototypes, I made my decision to leave NASA and reorient my career towards addressing the climate crisis.
This idea of harvesting energy from materials we don’t typically view as energy carriers stuck with me. In the final key “a ha” moment leading to Found’s inception, I realized that just as we were already sending energy to other planets in places where others weren’t looking, we’re doing the same thing here on Earth. Right now, we’re transporting a substantial amount of energy around Earth as the embodied energy of different materials - metals, organic materials, and plastics. But we rely on petroleum and methane as our primary formal energy carriers. While hydrocarbons in their various forms have a long list of negative environmental impacts, they otherwise do make great fuels from a practical perspective given their high energy density and low cost. Now as we look to move away from these fuels, we’ll need equivalent technologies to meet the increased demand for renewables far from their point of generation, as transporting renewables from places where they are abundant to where they aren’t is still a major overlooked bottleneck. As was the case with the Europa project, nuclear and lithium-ion are not practical for long-distance energy transportation, and while energy carriers like hydrogen are efficient to produce, many are very difficult to store and transport compactly and safely.
I realized that just as we were already sending energy to other planets in places where others weren’t looking, we’re doing the same thing here on Earth.
Aluminum again emerges as one of the most promising energy carriers - it’s the third most abundant element on Earth, has double the energy density of gasoline, and is easy and cheap to produce and ship. With the addition of a few key energy extraction technologies, we can turn the aluminum supply chain and others into vast energy transportation networks that can actually address the gaps that fossil fuels will leave behind. With first-principles conviction around this approach, I returned to MIT as a graduate student to work out this solution. This began what was an important phase of my life where my approach to addressing the climate crisis crystallized and I began to develop my toolkits in energy systems and materials science. I even explored using art and music to bring people together around these issues. Importantly for Found, by the end of my PhD and subsequent postdoc, I had solved a number of key challenges that made it difficult to use aluminum as a fuel for the many applications that require generating lots of power stably and safely, all while keeping costs down.
Emerging from my postdoc, the next logical step was to commercialize this technology, and everything quickly fell into place. I was awarded an Activate Fellowship, as well as some government grant funding, and I teamed up with Gadi Ruschin to start Found Energy, a company built around “finding” clean energy where others haven’t thought to look. In general, taking on climate change will require a combination of bold new ideas, and we are now throwing our solution into the mix as a major potential puzzle piece. On a personal level, I am thrilled to be a part of what I believe is our best effort at ensuring that we can continue to live and thrive on this planet.